Clinton, Henry

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Clinton, Henry

CLINTON, HENRY. (1730–1795). British commander in chief, 1778–1782. Clinton was born on 16 April 1730 to a naval officer who was related by marriage to the first duke of Newcastle. In 1741 Newcastle obtained for Clinton's father promotion to admiral and the governorship of New York, where the family lived from 1743. Young Clinton became a lieutenant in an independent company at New York in 1745, served at Louisburg the same year, and eventually rose to captain lieutenant. In 1748 he requested leave to go to France and probably traveled there (perhaps studying military science) from 1749 to 1751, when he returned to Britain. Through Newcastle's patronage he became a lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards (Second Foot Guards) on 1 November 1751, later rising to captain and aide de camp to Sir John Ligonier. On 6 April 1758 he became lieutenant colonel in the First Foot Guards and two years later saw his first actions at Korlach and Kloster Kamp. He became a colonel on 24 June 1762. Wounded at Johannisburg in Hesse on 30 August, he was invalided home. He was now established as a capable and experienced officer and a student of his profession. In 1766 he became colonel of the Twelfth Foot. Next year he married Harriet Carter (d. 1772) and went with his new regiment for a tour of duty at Gibraltar. In 1772 he was promoted to major general and began a political career as a member of Parliament in the Newcastle interest. In 1774 he was an observer of the Russo-Turkish war and on 1 February accepted the post of Gage's third in command in North America.


On 25 May he reached Boston equipped with considerable and varied military experience, theoretical knowledge, and a generally sound tactical and strategic sense. Unfortunately, he combined these qualities with two paradoxical characteristics: a deeply ingrained diffidence (particularly when in command) and a tendency to press his ideas on his superiors with tactless assertiveness. He presented Thomas Gage with a workable plan for taking Dorchester Heights but failed to get it adopted, perhaps because he failed to advocate it firmly, perhaps because he tried too hard. At Bunker Hill he disobeyed William Howe's orders in order to join one of the attacking columns and play a significant part in the eventual victory, but he worried for months afterwards that he might be reprimanded.

The Charleston expedition of 1776, his first experience of high independent command, was hamstrung by the ministry's overestimate of the strength of the southern Loyalists and by the logistical problems that beset all other British generals in North America. By the time his convoy reached the Cape Fear River on 12 March, the North Carolina Loyalists had already been defeated at Moores Creek Bridge. His promised reinforcements under Sir Peter Parker and Charles Lord Cornwallis were late in arriving from Cork, so that Clinton's force was not wholly assembled until the end of May. By then Clinton had decided that it was too late to do more than set up a raiding base in the Chesapeake before rejoining Howe for the attack on New York. However, he let Parker talk him into a combined assault on Fort Sullivan in Charleston Harbor, an attack that went fatally wrong when three of Parker's frigates ran aground and Clinton was unable to get his boats into the harbor at all. The results were a heavy boost to rebel morale, a three-week pause before re-embarkation was possible, and failure to reach Howe until perilously late in the season. None of that failure can fairly be attributed to Clinton's leadership, although Parker found it convenient to blame the army afterwards.


Now a local full general, Clinton probably planned as well as executed Howe's brilliant turning movement at Long Island on 27 August 1776. Clinton was later very critical of Howe's slowness and caution in his New York and New Jersey operations, especially the failure to cut off Washington inside New York City. At the time, however, he was full of the need to avoid even the mildest reverse that might encourage the rebels and undermine the redcoats' qualitative and moral advantage. After capturing Newport, Rhode Island, he asked to go home on a winter's leave, but this may not have been provoked wholly or even predominantly by his disapproval of Howe. His request, and his intention to resign, was perhaps motivated more by the way Germain seemed to have absorbed Parker's version of the Charleston fiasco.

Germain, unwilling to lose an able commander, was conciliatory, arranged for him to be knighted for Rhode Island (even though the Order of the Bath was full), and obtained for him the rank of lieutenant general on the regular establishment. He was even considered for the command of the Canadian expedition eventually given to Burgoyne.

Clinton's feelings about the Howe brothers' 1777 strategy were certainly not those of a bold, imaginative subordinate chaffing at the slowness of an overcautious commander in chief. If anything, the roles were reversed. Clinton, left behind to protect New York and, if possible, cooperate with Burgoyne, feared that Washington might evade Howe and descend upon his garrison in overwhelming force. Throughout August he sat still, making no attempt to press up the Hudson. By early September it was clear that Washington had swallowed Howe's bait and would be busy in Pennsylvania; Burgoyne, on the other hand, was asking for help, and Clinton himself was expecting substantial reinforcements from Britain. The reinforcements did not arrive until 24 September and Clinton did not begin to push upstream until 3 October. By 7 October he had forced his way through the American fortifications. However, although Burgoyne's senior, and although Burgoyne specifically asked him for instructions, Clinton would not accept the responsibility of coordinating the two armies. By 8 October he had neatly overcome the American fortifications in the Highlands but did not press on in force to Albany. Whether he could have reached there is doubtful: the Second Battle of Saratoga had been fought the day before and a small probing force under Vaughan and Wallace was still forty-five miles from Albany when it found the way blocked by around sixty-five hundred Americans. That was on 16 October, the day before Burgoyne finally surrendered. Howe's order to withdraw from the Highlands and send reinforcements to Pennsylvania came too late to affect the outcome. However, as Clinton was acutely aware, it did entail abandoning control of the lower Hudson, and with it the prospect of a base large enough to furnish adequate essential supplies.


By the end of the 1777 campaign, Clinton was again ready to resign, but the home government responded by making him commander in chief in place of Howe. Like Howe, he had to carry out a strategy devised in London while trying to keep his regulars intact for the final, decisive battle. With French entry into the war in 1778, his long transatlantic communications were all the more fragile, with the added danger that the French might at any time secure local superiority at sea. That certainly made him cautious, but as we have seen, he had been wary even in 1776. He was appalled when in May—just as he took over from Howe—he received orders to detach five thousand of his precious soldiers to the unhealthy West Indies for an attack on St. Lucia. Worse, to free these men he was to give up hard-won Philadelphia and with it the confidence of the Pennsylvania Loyalists. Worse, he was to send an expedition to Georgia to exploit the supposed great numbers of southern Loyalists. In short, he was asked to carry out a plan at least as ambitious as that of 1777 with far fewer and even more dangerously dispersed troops.

At first he was thrown onto the defensive. After failing to trap Lafayette at Barren Hill, Pennsylvania (20 May 1778), he had to evacuate Philadelphia by land (fighting the Battle of Monmouth on the way) to avoid a reported approaching French squadron. When he reached New York he found Estaing already threatening the harbor. It was November before the French fleet had gone and the St. Lucia detachment was safely away. Once the coast was literally clear, Clinton carried out the next part of his orders by sending three thousand men to Georgia. When Savannah fell in December 1778, Clinton wanted to exploit his success by attacking Charleston. But like Howe, he had to wait for the reinforcements that would allow him to do so without dangerously weakening New York. Meanwhile, he sent a raid to the Chesapeake and tried to lure Washington into a decisive battle by again thrusting up the Hudson to take Stony Point and Verplanck's Point on 1 June 1779. This move severed the Americans' most important east-west communications and promised to establish that vital supply base. In July, while he waited for Washington to react, Clinton launched the Connecticut coast raid.

To his frustration, he then received orders to send two thousand men to Canada. The reinforcements from Britain came in August—too late and riddled with sickness—just as Clinton heard of another French squadron about to descend on New York. He prudently concentrated his forces in New York, calling in his advanced Hudson posts as well as the Rhode Island garrison. As it turned out, the French and the Americans combined against Savannah, not New York. These events have been used to represent Clinton as a hopelessly indecisive commander, but in truth he was the victim of lack of numbers, French intervention, the intractable problem of transatlantic logistics, and a flawed strategy devised by a ministry three thousand miles away.


February 1780 found him before Charleston, where he had unexpectedly trapped Lincoln's army. Prudently preserving his troops by conducting a slow, regular siege, he finally took the city's surrender on 10 May and left Cornwallis behind to complete the conquest of South Carolina. Above all, Cornwallis was not to attempt anything against North Carolina or Virginia that might imperil South Carolina and Georgia. Clinton had no intention of risking anything more until he had at least ten thousand additional troops and a certainty that the French would not once again seize local naval supremacy. There is evidence that the cautious Clinton already found it hard to work with his more dashing subordinate and with the touchy Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. With Cornwallis now too far away to control easily and with little influence at home, Clinton suddenly found his cautious strategy undermined by the ministry's enthusiasm for Cornwallis's bold aggression.

Now Clinton's natural diffidence let him down. When Cornwallis invaded North Carolina and demanded reinforcements, Clinton sent detachment after detachment to the Chesapeake. By May 1781 around three-fifths of his regulars were in the South. Worse, when in the same month he found that Cornwallis had invaded Virginia without his consent, Clinton allowed him to stay where he was instead of ordering him back to South Carolina by sea. Knowing that a powerful French fleet could soon threaten British troops in the Chesapeake, Clinton decided to withdraw most of the forces there to New York. Yet when Cornwallis challenged these orders, and in the face of Germain's order (soon to be countermanded) to make no withdrawals, Clinton backed down and allowed Cornwallis to establish himself a base at Yorktown. Germain had already thought better of his decision, but by the time his countermanding instruction arrived, it was too late: as Clinton had feared, the French had taken control of the Chesapeake and Cornwallis had been forced to surrender. While Clinton's hesitation and lack of confidence was a contributory factor, the fault lay with the faulty strategy imposed from London three years before, Cornwallis's reckless insubordination, and Germain's endorsement of that insubordination.

However, Clinton, not Cornwallis, became the scapegoat for Yorktown. He resigned and stayed in America only long enough to hand over his command to Guy Carleton on 5 May 1782. He then returned to Britain to find that the king would not reward his service as commander in chief and that he was widely held responsible for Yorktown—and, indeed, for the entire British failure in North America. In the general election of 1784, having quarrelled with his patron, the second duke of Newcastle, he even lost his seat in Parliament. He spent most of his remaining years trying to rescue some shreds of reputation. He was returned to Parliament in 1790 and promoted to full general in October 1793. In July 1794 he was appointed governor of Gibraltar but died before taking up this post on 23 December 1795.


Clinton may have had a complicated personality, and he may at times have failed to assert his authority. Above all, however, he was placed in an impossible situation. The ministry insisted on directing a war from thousands of miles away when it would have been better to leave the commander in chief to get on with his job. Orders arrived late and caused confusion. Above all, the war was conducted from beginning to end on false premises: that there were huge numbers of would-be active Loyalists and that their greatest concentration was in the South. That led ministers to weaken gravely Clinton's army and to order its fatal dispersal in the face of enemies now powerful at sea. Much of his apparent dithering, like Howe's, was due to the late arrival of men and supplies that could only come from across the Atlantic. Clinton was an intelligent and able commander, and it is difficult to see how anyone in his position could have done more. Those who accuse Clinton of excessive caution as commander in chief should reflect upon where recklessness led Burgoyne and Cornwallis.

SEE ALSO Arbuthnot, Marriot; Bunker Hill, Massachusetts; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Cornwallis, Charles; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; Gage, Thomas; Howe, William; Lafayette, Marquis de; Monmouth, New Jersey; Moores Creek Bridge; Parker, Sir Peter; St. Lucia, Captured by the British; Stony Point, New York.


Bowler, R. A. Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in North America, 1775–1783. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Gruber, Ira D. The Howe Brothers and the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. London: Longman, 1964.

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1964.

                         revised by John Oliphant